March 28, 2003

Commentary

Blueprint to reduce youth gang violence

By: California Attorney General
Bill Lockyer

More than 300 of California’s cities are infested with gangs. My office estimates that there are more than 300,000 gang members in our state. Gangs have been the driving force for homicide in many areas of California.

In one especially successful strategy to reduce gang violence, the City of Stockton has cut gang-related youth homicide since 1997 by more than 75 percent. Stockton’s story is featured in the first issue of At the Local Level: Perspectives on Violence Prevention, a publication my office has launched in partnership with the California Health and Human Services Agency.

In “Ending Gang Homicide: Deterrence Can Work,” Stewart Wakeling, the Juvenile Justice System Coordinator for San Joaquin County, explains that in 1997 residents of Stockton, which had more then 150 street gangs, feared an epidemic of youth violence. The problem had spun out of control when several young women — all bystanders — were killed in gang violence over the span of just a few months.

Stockton responded by adopting Boston’s successful anti-gang program. Under the Stockton approach, termed “Peacekeepers,” Stockton’s police department reassigned several patrol officers to a new unit focused exclusively on gangs. The city then followed a five-step strategy:

(1) Assembled a partnership of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, community groups and public social service agencies to provide a coordinated approach to solving the gang problem.

(2) Analyzed the youth violence problem and used the results in designing the local approach. Stockton found, for example, that more than 50 percent of all its homicides were gang-related, and that a large portion of the gang homicides were driven by conflicts between Norteño and Sureño gangs. A large proportion of the youth who were involved in homicides were on probation or parole. Based on this information, the partner agencies stepped up their supervision of gang members who were at the highest risk of violence.

(3) Directly and repeatedly communicated the message about violence and its consequences to gangs. Law enforcement agencies in Stockton met directly with gang leaders and high-risk youth associated with the area’s gangs, with this message: Any illegal behavior by an active, violent gang - from driving without a license or registration, to drinking in public, to selling drugs - would be immediately punished with any available legal tool.

(4) Responded to those gang members that didn’t get the message with a well-coordinated and intensive law enforcement effort.

(5) Balanced this message with offers for services by gang outreach workers, social services agencies and faith-based organizations to provide jobs, strengthen school performance and provide a range of constructive alternatives to violence.

As a result of this comprehensive strategy, gang-related homicides among youth in Stockton were reduced from 18 in 1997 to just one the following year and remained low each year from 1999 through 2001. School violence also fell substantially.

These steps can be adapted by any city or county to reduce serious youth violence. For additional information on the “Peacekeepers” approach, please read At the Local Level at www.SafeState.org, or contact Mr. Wakeling at swakeling@co.san-joaquin.ca.us.

Return to the Frontpage